To most people, an 80 percent success rate at anything is pretty good – a passing grade of B.
But what if that refers to rehabilitated ex-terrorists? Because that's the rate the Saudi Arabian government claims for successfully reintegrating ex-detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
Jabr al-Faifi, for instance, was an ex-Gitmo detainee who entered Saudi rehab in 2006.True, he escaped from the program to join Al Qaeda in neighboring Yemen. But he apparently had a change of heart, contacted the rehabilitation center directly, and recently turned himself in to the Saudis. Reportedly, he provided critical information on the Yemen cargo bombs mailed to Jewish addresses in the United States.
(One wonders whether he was actually an informer for the Saudis – or is even a double agent for the other side. But since there's no way to know, let's refrain from that rumination.)
In any case, Saudi editorials have touted al-Faifi's return (and the return of another Al Qaeda operative who had fled with him) as a success of the program – this according to the Middle East Media Research Institute, a independent nonprofit that translates and analyzes Mideast news.
But with the recent release of 11 participants from the program, some Saudi columnists are criticizing it for coddling terrorists, MEMRI reports.
The program works like this: Participants meet with a religious scholar for debate and persuasion over the interpretation of Islam. When they appear to have changed their views and graduate, they also meet with generous government support, such as jobs, housing, cash payments, and – in a case last month, a sumptuous wedding. The graduates' families are also held responsible for their loved-one's behavior.
"How can [we] lodge terrorists in comfortable dormitories, with culture and sports programs, and then marry them off, find them work, and support them financially?! The [very] notion seems strange and even frightening to anyone who has been exposed to terrorism and its deeds," wrote columnist Nasser al-Sarami in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah on Oct. 24.
Saudis can debate the value of reform-through-incentive. It's not an unusual idea and has merit. What concerns me more is Mr. al-Sarami's second point, which is whether it's possible to "cleanse" these terrorists of "beliefs that are deeply rooted in their minds." That question gets at the issue of recidivism.
In 2009, Saudi Arabia published a list of its 85 most wanted terrorists, all of whom were outside the country. Seven of the people on the list had once been held in Guantanamo, had been through the Saudi rehab program, and are now thought to be at large in Yemen.
Seven. That's not that many when you are talking about a drug dealer or a burglar. But these are terrorists intent on blowing up planes and bringing life as the West knows it to a halt.
The Saudis need to aim for 100 percent success, and keep learning from their mistakes.